The National Park Service is changing the way it tells stories about the Civil War.
By John Hennessy
When I entered the business of interpreting history to the public, I brought with me an intellectual sophistication not far evolved from my childhood sentiments as a nine-year-old in Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland: History is cool. Fast-forward to my first years as an interpretive ranger at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia in the 1980s, when I knew a lot about the Civil War but understood little. The public that wandered those fields with me, however, knew and understood even less. And as avid consumers of stories about the soldiers’amazing deeds, they seemed to believe I was doing my job quite well.
About three years in came the challenge—not from an academic who knew more about the war than I did, but from a park visitor who knew far less. He approached me after a tour and asked, “Why do you do this?” I started to explain how important it was to understand the experiences of the soldiers who fought here, but he cut me off. “Who cares what regiment was here or what regiment was there? Why does all this matter? How can you stand to talk about death all the time? With enthusiasm?! What a horror!” And he walked away.
That confrontation was the first hint that not everyone shared my rather narrow vision of the Civil War. The challenge befuddled me, but in many ways it shaped my career—forcing me to recognize the interesting role public historians play in interpreting the Civil War to the nation. To a greater degree than most, we sit on a wobbly roost.
On the one side of us is a vast expanse of tradition, tugging relentlessly, reminding us why the nation chose to remember the Civil War as it did in postwar decades. The country focused on aspects that could bind a shattered republic back together, setting aside “bothersome” issues like slavery and race, which divided us. And so the nation’s collective gaze focused squarely on battlefields, and the shared experience of soldiers blue and gray, courageously engaged toward noble ends, each convinced of his righteousness, most led by wise and noble men. Anything else not clad in uniform—like the causes, results, and legacy of the war—was left out of public conversation.
This was the tradition inherited by the National Park Service when it took over management of the battlefields in the 1930s, and this was the historical tradition I championed during my first years on the front line at Manassas. Until that unhappy visitor openly challenged my interpretation with a question that I had thus far failed to grasp: Why does it matter?
In the last five decades, America’s longstanding view of the Civil War has been disputed, reconsidered, and expanded immensely. Scholars have argued that interpretation focused strictly on the military story is misleading or, more often, extremely shortsighted. The sector of the public that can relate to my angry friend at Manassas sometimes accuses us of confusing history with nostalgia. More often, they just stop visiting battlefields.
The debate poses an interesting challenge for Park Service historians. Traditional programs focused on men in uniform generally offend or disappoint those advocating a broader view of the war. Programs exploring causes, consequences, or the most incendiary topic—slavery—are often seen by traditionalists as an attempt to politicize or even diminish the long-held view of the war as a stage for valor and sacrifice.
What do we as public historians make of all that? Are we storytellers bound by tradition, or historians seeking to expand knowledge and understanding?
We are, I submit, both. Dozens of Park Service sites inherit their stories directly from the participants—President Lyndon B. Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and President Jimmy Carter, to name a few. Battlefields inherited their stories in the same way, too. Are we not affected by the mandate or wishes of those soldiers, civilians, and politicians who bequeath their legacy to us? Of course we are. And we should be. The National Park Service, as part of the government, is charged with helping to sustain our nation—its identity, its values, its memory. We acquired and accepted these battlefields as a form of tribute and commemoration to those who fought on those grounds, and continuing to fulfill that mandate is a moral and national obligation. We are not, and should not be, above the forces of historical memory and tradition.
But we must be aware of those forces. We must help visitors understand the distinction between history and tradition. And, when needed, we must untangle the two. This is an exercise in going beyond tradition, not abandoning it. The new museum at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania helps visitors understand that Lincoln’s use of the battlefield at Gettysburg—as a stage upon which to articulate a new vision for the nation—had everything to do with the profound nature of the battle itself. In Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia, we can take people to the riverbanks of the Rappahannock and read a white woman’s lament that the Yankees’ arrival in 1862 left her “heartsick… stunned and waiting for the end,” and then read a slaves’ memoir, speaking of the same moment by declaring, “I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt like I was certain of my freedom now.” The very same moment, perceived and remembered so differently. A war that meant one thing to one person and something entirely different to another. How rich is that?
By just focusing on the battle details, compelling as they are, the Park Service has lost people like the angry visitor at Manassas all those years ago. I console myself with the thought that he may have just been a grump without an appreciation for cultural significance, and I try to believe that losing a few people like him is okay. But losing a nation is not. Americans need to know why these events are relevant beyond the inspiration they can provide. By engaging the public in history that accepts differing perceptions, digs deep into the human experience, and illustrates the profound impact of the Civil War on America and the world, we public historians have the chance to do something a bit historic ourselves.